Saturday, January 28, 2012

Joe the Plumber?

Ever had a houseguest who’s overstayed his welcome?

He’s broken everything in your home and on his way out the door, he stops to use your bathroom. He flushes the toilet and it overflows. “See ya!” he shouts, heading out the door.

You rush into the bathroom and discover two inches of raw sewage lining the floor and see a geyser of sludge bursting from the latrine. Quickly, you trod through the muck, bend down and turn off the water valve. The geyser recedes, but your shoes are covered in something that smells awful… and it’s seeping through the shoe leather.

You rush over to your neighbor to borrow a plunger. He says, “Sure, I have a one, but I’m not going to give it to you.” His buddy next door adds, “You should really be focusing on pumping more water. That’ll flush everything out of your house.”

You return home, befuddled by their attitudes. Facing a tremendous repair and cleanup, you improvise. You throw towels on the floor to soak up the water, spray some air freshener to give your sense of smell a moment’s respite, then drop to your knees with a wire coat hanger in an attempt to snake out the toilet. And that’s when your wife walks in.

You tell her it could have been worse. Somehow, she seems to take small comfort in that, even though it’s true, had you not acted as you did, you would both be up to your eyeballs in sewage, not your ankles. Your wife has to decide whether to stay in the relationship or dump you in November. Your name is Barack Obama and you’re still cleaning up the mess your Texan White Houseguest left. Your Republican neighbors aren’t going to lift a finger to help because they want you to move out of the neighborhood. The economy still stinks but it could have been much, much worse. People seems to take small comfort in that. The voters must decide whether to stay in the relationship with you, or dump you for the Texan’s cousin from Utah. What are you going to do?

Friday, January 6, 2012

What Makes A Fictional Character Memorable?

What makes a fictional character memorable?

I think the character has to have a quirkiness (Randle McMurphy in Ken Kessey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; the misogynistic, conceited Sherlock Holmes; or any of the supporting characters in books like Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series), strong motivation (Inspector Javert's unyielding pursuit of Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables or Captain Ahab's relentless quest for Moby Dick), or in some way personifies the human condition in a way in which readers can relate (any of Dicken's characters - Bob Cratchett, a father trying desperately to provide for his family at Christmas in A Christmas Carol; Oliver Twist, a homeless orphan; Miss Havisham, the bitter, jilted spinster of Great Expectations).

Who are your most memorable fictional characters and what has made them stand out all these years in your mind?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Behind "The Lobster Thriller"

Searching for new markets to sell my short stories to, I stumbled across an odd little e-zine called The Journal of Unlikely Entomology. I perused their submission requirements, mentally checking off which ones I met. Speculative fiction? Check. Weird stories? Check. Avant-garde? Check. Reprints? Check. “Beautifully written fiction, characters that grab us by the throats and refuse to let go until their stories have been told, worlds that draw us in and demand to be explored?” Check. Bugs? WTF?

Ah, entomology: the study of insects. Houston, we have a problem. Did any of my stories have insects in them? I did a quick inventory and remembered my 2009 Christmas story. I write an annual Christmas story and that year it was “A Christmas Present For Ashley”, the crucifixion tale told from the POV (point of view) of a Madagascar hissing cockroach. Check.

What appealed to me most about the e-zine was its panache: a take-off on the haughty, 19th century style reminiscent of The AcmeNovelty Library. So, using my best Chris Ware impression, I dashed off an e-mail to the publisher:

I ran across The Journal Of Unlikely Entomology and thought it might provide a suitable home for "A Christmas Present For Ashley". Until now, I had categorized this as a Christmas piece, not realizing there might be a discrete market for tales of a Madagascar hissing cockroach. Note, this would fall under the heading of reprint rights, as it has appeared in two anthologies, but I am submitting it for your consideration because it seemed the perfect piece for The Journal Of Unlikely Entomology.

Should you by any chance start a sister publication, The Journal of Unlikely Crustaceology, please advise me, as I would finally have a place for my lobster thriller.

It was 3 a.m. and I was a bit tired and giddy, so I might be excused for the flippant attempt at humor. I presumed anyone who could craft The Journal of Unlikely Entomology would share my wry sense of humor and laugh at the concept of a companion journal for crustaceology (the study of crustaceans) and the preposterous notion of the genre of lobster fiction. A few days later, I received this reply:

Just found this in the spam folder, for reasons I can't fathom…

After all these years of writing, I’m used to my submissions landing in far worse places than a spam filter, so I continued reading.

We do have a policy of accepting a maximum of one reprint per issue, which does cut the odds. On the other hand, lobsters are bugs. Sort of…. We'd be happy to take a look at your lobster thriller.

They probably would not be interested in the story I sent, but might want to publish my lobster thriller! Omigod! I laughed until endorphins dripped from my eyelids. Then, I sobered up. I remembered I didn’t have a lobster thriller. I didn’t even know what a lobster thriller was! What to do? I considered telling them the reference to a lobster thriller was a joke, but in my experience, people only find jokes funny when they are in on them. If they missed the joke and later have it pointed out, they tend to be embarrassed and become resentful, if not rancorous. Not a good way to entice them into publishing my story.

There was only one option: write a lobster thriller in 24 hours. I can never resist a writing challenge. Now, what the hell is a lobster thriller? It should have the elements of a thriller and somehow revolve around a lobster, I concluded. There were two choices: (1) a story in which a lobster is the main character or (2) a Maltese Falcon tale, where the lobster is the object sought by the characters. Since I had already submitted a story told from a cockroach’s POV, I chose the second option. A friend had challenged me to write a Young Adult story, so I figured, what the hell. The next day, I had “The Lobster Thriller” — a 5,000–word Young Adult lobster thriller. I had not only crafted a new story; I had created an entirely new genre!

The following day, I was stricken with a life-threatening medical issue and “The Lobster Thriller” and everything else in my life got placed on the back burner for several weeks. When life settled down, I realized I had never gotten around to sending the “The Lobster Thriller” to the e-zine. Oops.

So, that’s how I came to write a story about Chinese spies, biological warfare, a Vietnamese fisherman, a lighthouse, and 16-year-old Wesley Snodgrass’ misadventure with a yellow lobster. Click on the cover below to begin reading “The Lobster Thriller”!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hair - the Age of Aquarius

I was at the barber shop the other day and I ran into a guy who...  what's that? OK, you're right. I admit it: I haven't been to a barber shop since I turned 14 and had my last 50-cent haircut. The Vitalis, greased back wet look was on the way out and the blown-dry "dry look" was in vogue, so with the start of junior high, I convinced my mother to do what all the cool kids at school were doing and have my hair not cut by Sam the barber but instead coiffed by a men's hair stylist.

The storefront bay was dimly lit and filled with the scent of burning incense. Jimi Hendrix's guitar reverberated through the eight-track system's carefully arranged speakers. Blacklights eerily illuminated posters on the walls and lava lamps adorned the reception desk and several coffee tables. Copies of Rolling Stone magazine, Zap Comix, and the Daily Planet (an underground newspaper the local hippies hawked on street corners for a quarter) were scattered across the tables, along with a few roach clips. I didn't think my mother knew what a roach clip was, but I nonchalantly covered them with the newspaper anyway. Why take a chance of getting barred from such a cool place?

My hairstylist introduced himself as Mister Lucky, or Lucky for short. I never knew his real name. Not that it mattered. He was a persona, not a person. That's how he wanted it: a virtuoso coiffeur, larger than life. He had ego, he had flair, and he had panache.  More importantly, he had talent when it came to cutting hair, so I traded in the Opie Taylor look for the David Cassidy style. It cost $10 and even Mister Lucky’s tip was twice the cost of a barber shop haircut, but when I look back on those days and recall my tie-dyed shirt, bell-bottom slacks, and Peter Max sneakers, I can thank Mister Lucky that at least he made my hair look cool.

I found another gray hair today. I keep pulling them out, but they’re like hydras: for every one I yank, two more sprout elsewhere. Mister Lucky would know what to do. I guess I’ll just have to accept aging gracefully. The years go by so quickly as you get older. And now, another has passed. Happy New Year.